Rivera legacy forged by success, failure

It takes only a few moments with Mariano Rivera to appreciate the grace and humility of a champion who’s actually normal. There is no gimmickry in Mariano’s world, no look-at-me gene that demands constant nourishment from his fans. He is an ordinary person, more like the folks in the stands than the stars on the field. Just a regular guy.

Except he’s not: Rivera is entering the Hall of Fame as an historic figure and not just because of his 652 career saves, the 0.70 postseason ERA or even the first-ever unanimous vote by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Rivera’s legacy is equally forged by both failure and success – a contradiction that makes him so relatable.

Throughout his 19-year career, Rivera was inevitably asked: what’s your secret? He’d gladly share the tips of his craft, even to pitchers from rival teams: how to throw that legendary cut-fastball, how to spot opposing hitters’ weaknesses before they stepped into the box, how to work on control even when playing catch. But a highly evolved radar was only part of Rivera’s arsenal.

It was learning how to deal with heartbreak that made Rivera the perfect ninth-inning terminator. He eventually embraced the closer’s time-honored axiom: those last three outs are like leather; the imperfections are what make the game real. Only the synthetic stuff is flawless.

No two failures were as memorable as the home run he allowed to Sandy Alomar Jr. in Game 4 of the 1997 Division Series against the Indians, ultimately leading to the Yankees’ collapse. And four years later, in the 2001 World Series, Rivera was unable to hold a ninth-inning lead against the Diamondbacks, not only costing the Yankees a championship but setting in motion the beginning of the end of the Joe Torre-era dynasty.

Rivera took both failures hard but without grief. He refused to second-guess himself, nor did he invoke anyone except the higher powers.

Speaking of Alomar’s home run, which ended the Yankees’ hopes of ending the series in four games – they lost Game 5 the next night – Rivera admitted, “it took me a long, long time to get over that.”

He paused and added a second, more salient thought.

“I finally realized that some things are just out of your control,” the great right-hander said. “I became a much stronger person after 1997. I always knew there were other things waiting for me. God had plans for my life.

“Sometimes God is looking to see how you will react. The truth is, you have to experience good as well as bad. If all you ever did was succeed, it wouldn’t be an enjoyable life. Knowing this made me a better man, a stronger man.”

Any Yankees historian remembers the moment when Rivera’s education began. It was Alomar’s eighth-inning blast, not Omar Vizquel’s game-winning single off Ramiro Mendoza, that proved decisive. Only four outs away from finishing off the Indians, Rivera entered the game in place of Mike Stanton and promptly served up a game-tying, opposite-field home run.

Rivera recalled being behind 2-0 in the count, so anxious to throw a strike he didn’t anticipate Alomar jumping on the next fastball.

“Honestly, I didn’t think he’d be swinging,” Rivera said. “I was just trying to throw a strike. That wasn’t much else I could remember about that.”

That scene replayed in the 2001 World Series when Rivera was beaten by Luis Gonzalez’s ninth-inning single in Game 7. So much had changed for the Yankees in the four years since Alomar’s homer. They’d gone on to win three consecutive world championships and were on their way to a fourth in ’01. All the Bombers needed were three more outs from Rivera and this dynasty would be remembered as one of history’s greatest – if it wasn’t already.

But Rivera came up short, unable to contain a rally that ended with Gonzalez’ bloop single over the Yankees’ drawn-in infield. Though they didn’t know it at the time, the Bombers’ dynasty had begun its decline. It would be another eight years before another championship would come to the Bronx.

Rivera struggled to find an explanation, especially since he’d struck out the side in the eighth inning. The Diamondbacks appeared to be no match for Rivera or his cutter as the ninth inning began.

But 30 minutes later, with the crowd at Bank One Ballpark still in riot-party mode and the D-Backs going crazy in their clubhouse, Rivera looked for strength from within.

“I feel bad, but I’m not perfect. I did the best I could,” he said quietly. “I made every pitch I wanted to. I made good pitches, but they just hit them. What can you do?”

The trauma was so profound that even New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who’d accompanied the Yankees to Arizona, found himself consoling George Steinbrenner. The entire city offered its thanks to the Yankees for a dynamic run through the post-season, helping heal the wounds of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center that Sept. 11.

The Yankees had become America’s team for a month. Another ring would’ve made for the perfect ending, not the one that actually unfolded. Rivera instead was re-living the blown save, although somewhere within a voice was telling the closer all was already forgiven.

“I left it all on the field,” Rivera said. “I’ll go home knowing I did the best I could. I gave everything. Everything.”

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